Mountains, Winding Roads and Your Friendly Neighborhood Rebels

Laos is an extremely beautiful country and has provided some much needed relief to the topographic mundaneness we were beginning to feel from the rest of SE Asia. Dramatic limestone carst cliffs dot the landscape pretty much the entire length of the country and the wilderness here is very pristine. Given the relatively small population density of Laos… Laos has roughly 6 million people compared to neighboring Vietnam’s 90 while occupying nearly the same size country, Laos has been able to set aside a significant amount of land as reserves thus protecting much of the countryside’s natural beauty. Seeing all of the mountains in their dramatic form brought back some good memories of home since the only mountains we have seen on the trip to date have really only been hills.

Driving north from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang and ever closer to our rendezvous with China took us through arguably some of the most spectacular scenery yet. National Highway 13N is little more than a backcountry road in most western countries and in some spots, is barely wide enough to accommodate the Toyotas and a passing bus or truck and after making it to Luang Prabang, I can also say that it is the windiest road I have ever been on. If you tend to get sick while riding in cars, this road would have been your demise. The straightest section of road was probably 100 meters long and represented a bridge spanning a raging river below. When everyone in the cars was not taking time to breathe deeply, we were enjoying the spectacular views after ascending several thousand feet and winding along the ridge line of some massive mountains. 

The road to Luang Prabang also takes you through Xieng Khuang province which is home to the Hmong people. Back during the days of the Vietnam War, the CIA trained a lot of the Hmong hilltribesmen to fight against the communists here in Laos. The war has long been over, but the rebels are still here and are still fighting to a certain extent. Even though a large number gave up their arms a few years ago, we still saw groups of rebels, some not more than 14 years old, walking down the road dressed in fatigues and each carrying a Kalashnikov rifle (AK-47) over their shoulders. Even higher up in the mountains, a few rebels appeared to be flagging down passing vehicles to solicit "donations." We did not stop, nor did we have any problems with the rebels, but it makes for interesting motoring when a guy sitting on the hillside staring at your car has an automatic rifle in his lap and his buddy has just come back from the truck in front of you with a few thousand Kip in his hand.